Binaries Aren’t Going to Work

Amazon: The Great Satan, Bringer of Death and Destruction, Strangler of Innovation, Purveyor of Crap and Free Kindle Titles Really Not Worth Thinking About, Much Less Reading

Amazon: Liberator of the Dispossesed, Salvation of the Independent Writer, Democratizer of the Written Word, Sworn Protector of the Future Against the Monolithic Behemoths of the Past

Okay, well, obviously neither of these are totally true, though I’m much more sympathetic to the first version than the second. The thing about the publishing industry, and about Amazon in particular, is that it’s, uh, complicated.

Take this Twitter exchange between Dennis Johnson, Eoin Purcell, and Don Linn. The first link is to a blog post on Melville House’s site. (Unfortunately, you’ll have to click through to Storify to see it. WordPress.com doesn’t support Javascript or plug-ins):

[View the story “Melville House on Amazon” on Storify]

So here’s the thing: I think Dennis, Eoin, and Don are all well aware of the difficulty publishers are facing in a business marked more and more by the existence of a single, huge company responsible for the majority of distribution and retail transactions in print and especially in digital. Melville House probably couldn’t survive without their Amazon sales, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be concerned when a major part of their business is wrapped in in this single company. And, therefore, it makes sense to be extra concerned when Amazon appears to be consolidating talent in its offices as part of its ongoing efforts to become a publisher themselves.

Really what this gets at, for me, is the insistence in tech-ish publishing circles to view the whole saga of Amazon, ebooks, and publishers as some kind of epic struggle amongst competitors over who will ultimately prevail as the most efficient, successful, wealthy, or strongest company, and who will fall apart as weak, backwards-thinking, hopelessly outdated relics of a bygone (and, implicitly, inferior) era. And, if there will never be a winner, at least the struggle will make everyone stronger.

If you’re into that kind of Free Market, Randian gobbledygook, more power to you. But despairing that the “wrong team” (i.e., Amazon) is winning is not, really, Dennis’s objection. The problem with this capitalist struggle in the book industry is not that it might destroy publishers but that it might destroy books and book culture. Amazon, like any large corporation, really only cares about profits. This is surely true about some of the Big Six publishers, too, who at the end of the day need to impress their shareholders. But it is not true about “books,” broadly speaking, or book culture, which are the readers, writers, conversations, and social activity which exist around and because of books. It’s much more than book clubs; book culture is the whole intellectual exchange of ideas which sits as the bedrock of an educated and engaged citizenry. Book culture is culture, in other words.

Some people are in the publishing business because it’s a business. You could be selling coffee mugs or exercise equipment. It doesn’t matter as long as you make money. Many other people, especially at low-margin, small, independent, or non-profit presses, want to sell books because they love books. They probably only care about money and sales in terms of how those sales will allow them to keep making books. It’s a means to an end. If we sell enough this year, it means we can publish again next year. For Amazon, the money is not a means to an end. It’s the end.

Same goes with technology. I like ebooks and I work with ebooks, but I don’t like them primarily because they are new tech. I like them because I’m interested in reading books, and figuring out ways of making books better and more accessible. As Sarah Weinman pointed out in an excellent post today, “Serious Nonfiction in the Digital Age”:

So when digital evangelists prognosticate about the future of publishing, as they love to do, and about what “needs” to go away, serious nonfiction is now one of the first things I think about […] in thinking about who the future Caros will be, we have to consider that certain “outdated” mechanisms of big publishing may have had a larger point that digital publishing models cannot ever hope to replicate.

It’s an important point, and we need to consider what we can do with tech to help make books, not what we can do with books to help promote tech.

I often get annoyed at people ruing that the Internet has destroyed book culture, because this tends to clump blogs, online magazine and journals, and independent or DIY presses alongside content farms, auto-aggregated “reviews” and recommendations, and corporations intent on selling your data to other corporations. But that’s not to say that there isn’t a threat from the Internet, it’s just that the threat to book culture is not from digital, per se. It’s from corporate entities really, really interested in finding ways of exploiting book culture, sucking it dry and leaving its bloated corpse behind when it’s finished.

Again, this isn’t to say that Big Publishers have always been pure of heart or have never published anything except deep, thoughtful, beautiful books. Of course that’s not true. But when people express surprise that a small press like Melville House has serious reservations about Amazon, and express that surprise in sarcastic quibs about “just stop selling there,” it’s a case of the “Publishing-As-Free-Market-Enterprise” winning out over “Publishing-As-Part-of-Book-Culture.” A press like Melville House, if they are really serious about publishing great books, should never accept a monastic existence in which they don’t engage with the forces – good, benign, and evil – which make up their world. Book culture is about engaging with the world in a very serious, profound way, and that means Melville House is probably going to have to sell books through Amazon. They shouldn’t just accept their situation, of course, and they should stand up about it and try to do what they can to make book culture a more just and sustainable part of our society. But they shouldn’t just give in, and they shouldn’t just except the Free Market paradigm as their only option for thinking about the world.

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2 comments

  1. […] Binaries Aren’t Going to Work « Wordisms. Share this:MoreLike this:LikeBe the first to like this […]

  2. Thanks for putting this so thoughtfully and precisely, particularly in your last paragraph. I’d say not being “monastic” is pretty much our credo — as it should be of any publisher, of course.

    But in any event let me take the opportunity — or rather the space, not available on Twitter — to concur in some detail: The whole “why do you sell at Amazon if you oppose them so much?” question is fair enough from the naive, but inexcusable bullying from industry insiders — it is, in fact, precisely the “only money matters” dictum that Amazon has successfully inculcated into such a large swath of our culture (but is so especially perverse in book culture). I suppose it’s obvious that companies founded by hedge fund managers (Jeff Bezo’s previous job) are going to spawn astro-turfing spokespeople like, er, former Wall Streeter Don Linn. But beyond that, the question is just naked hostility meant to distract from the point at hand. That is, that Amazon has taken over the market and at least small publishers like Melville House don’t have a choice of selling there or not. So obviously the quip is meant rhetorically — a cheap-shot put-down rather than an attempt to engage or enlighten. It’s also a quip telling us, essentially, to give up by becoming martyrs — to give up our largest account, i.e. probably go out of business, i.e. to go fuck ourselves.

    For the record, we’re not going to do that. Our number one obligation as publishers is to get the work of our authors into every conceivable retailer — maybe even especially those whose politics or economics we disagree with. If we can get shoppers at such outlets to buy our books, we may in fact have a greater chance of impacting society than in preaching to the converted.

    And may I add, Jesus! in what other industry does a business person find themselves susceptible to insult when they disagree on an aspect of doing business with a partner? Major businesses disagree on the terms of their associations all the time. They — and we — are allowed to do that. And then there’st eh notion of free speech …

    Well, let me close by making clear one more time that we’ve never said Amazon should be put out of business. They’re a marvelous retailer. What they aren’t is a good business partner. All we want is for them to behave — to abide by the law and participate in a healthy ecosystem.

    Thanks again.

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